Ozz Negri and John Pew combined stellar pit work and late-race speed to give Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian its first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship victory, teaming in the No. 60 Honda Ligier JS P2 to win Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix powered by Mazda at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Negri led all but five of the final 31 laps on the 11-turn, 2.238-mile circuit to give the team its first triumph since winning the 2012 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
“It feels like a curse has been lifted,” Pew said. “We’ve been on the podium a few times but not on the top step for a while. The team made a great strategy call. Ozz doesn’t stop thinking about our car 24/7. He called our engineer late last night and said ‘Let’s try this.’ It was a lot about saving tires. It was Ozz’s fault that we won.”
The two-hour race opened as a continuation of a dream weekend for Mazda Motorsports. The team ran 1-2 in all three practice sessions, qualified both cars on the front row and then ran 1-2 throughout the opening half hour of the race. TOTAL Pole Award winner Tristan Nunez paced the opening 25 laps in the No. 55 ModSpace Mazda Prototype, closely pursued by Tom Long in the team’s No. 70 entry.
Then, an incident involving two of the top three cars in the point standings sent the remaining Prototype contenders to the pits – with the Mazdas returning to action running fifth and sixth after encountering problems connecting the fuel probes on the pit stops. Only six laps later, Joel Miller pulled off course prior to the Corkscrew, losing power in the No. 70 started by Long that led to that car’s retirement.
Negri was third in line after taking over for Pew during the caution, but needed only two laps to take the lead from Sean Rayhall, with the No. 0 Panoz DeltaWing Racing electing not to change drivers on its pit stop.
With the Long/Miller car out, Mazda teammate – and Monterey native – Jonathan Bomarito then challenged Negri for the lead, only to spin on Lap 45 as the top two cars were coming up on slower traffic. Bomarito managed to continue and finished fourth, matching the team’s best finish.
From that point, Eric Curran in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering/Team Fox Corvette DP and Marc Goossens in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP took turns out front during the final round of green flag pit stops. Negri took the lead on Curran’s final top with 40 minutes remaining, and led the rest of the way while the two Corvette DPs put on a spirited battle for the runner-up slot.
Goossens finished second, 30.099 behind Negri but only 0.855 seconds ahead of Curran. Bomarito took fourth, followed by Katherine Legge in the No. 0 Panoz DeltaWing Racing coupe started by Rayhall.
“We showed everyone in the paddock that we have a car that can win races,” Nunez said. “That’s all that matters. We’re going to take what we learned here and move forward.”
The complexion of the race changed at the 33-minute mark. After running third behind Christian Fittipaldi since the opening lap, Ricky Taylor passed Fittipaldi to take the position in Turn 9 on lap 24. The pair went side by side into Turn 10, when Fittipaldi slid into Taylor, putting both cars into a gravel trap to bring out the second caution flag. Taylor managed to return to the race two laps down before turning the No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP over to his brother Jordan. It took a longer time to extract the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP, with Fittipaldi losing five laps before turning the car over to Joao Barbosa.
The incident also cost two-time defending champion the lead in the standings. Entering the event with a three-point lead, Barbosa and Fittipaldi now unofficially trail new leaders Cameron and Curran by three points, 121-118. Goossens is third with 117 points.
Chasing the setup of the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP all weekend, the team missed the pre-race grid and was forced to start the race from pit road – and then serve a drive-through penalty. Ryan Dalziel managed to catch the back of the Prototype field before the second caution period for the Fittipaldi-Taylor incident, turning the car over to Goossens in a competitive position.
The victory was the third in four races for a Honda-powered Ligier. Extreme Speed Motorsports – which is concentrating on the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup races – opened the season by winning the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida.
Round 5 of the WeatherTech Championship will feature the Prototype, Prototype Challenge (PC) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes in the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic Presented by Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers at the Raceway on Belle Isle Park on Saturday, June 4.